Arts: The immortal goddess from the sea

Ursula Andress is the Bond girl who will be remembered for ever as the athlete who stepped out of the Caribbean. Unbelievably, she is now 62. She talked to W Stephen Gilbert
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When I go to meet Miss Ursula Andress, I take flowers. Even so proper and obvious a gesture carries levels of subtext. In the journalist it may seem ingratiating. The movie siren may not care for flowers or for these in particular: Thuringium lilies of a deep cerise. Or she may take an admirer's gesture for granted, and be off-hand.

In this case, there is a particular reason to make the gesture, and that same reason may, for such a woman, be painful. She may not wish that I know it, but the fact is that the day we meet is the lady's birthday. Unthinkably, Ursula Andress is now 62.

She passes the test, if test it be, with genuine grace and gratitude, not with acting. Her dress is casual and comfortable, her manner warm and attentive. She does interviews on sufferance but, like any red-blooded woman, she really wants to go shopping. I'm with her. Of course it's fascinating to sit and talk, but shopping with her, that would have been the greatest treat.

She is in London with her latest movie. "Ursula Andress stars in new art film," cries the press release, and they don't come more art film than Cremaster 5, the 53-minute vision of Matthew Barney. It is no surprise to learn that Mr Barney, who attends our meeting, has a background in performance art. He takes three roles in the film, and does not stint his demands when directing himself.

I ask him what it is about Miss Andress and her iconic image that he is looking to explore in the film. Mr Barney takes a deep pause to meditate, and Miss Andress exquisitely chooses this moment to send her glass of orange juice cascading across the table, to cries of "Merde, merde, merde!", and to scamper - yes, certainly scamper - from the room in search of assistance. Mr Barney buries his answer deep in imagery but I extract from it the crystal line: "She was probably the first athletic sex symbol".

Indeed, the legendary sequence that both introduced her to a global public and sealed her immortality is the one wherein she emerges from the sea (I swear I first mistyped "sea" as "sex") to encounter Connery's James Bond on a Jamaican isle in Dr No. And that sequence - like all proverbial movie moments, shorter and simpler than hindsight has made it - has its particular appeal because not only is Andress merely eye-wideningly beautiful and dressed to drive you mad, but, with her fearsome knife and determined stroll, she is clearly perfectly able to look after herself, a new and very Sixties image of a sex goddess.

The icon herself was perplexed by the shooting of the emerging-from-the- sea sequence. "I thought they were going to have a transparent wave open on me," she says. "I thought they did it in such a way that I didn't see it when I was in Jamaica [she means, while on location]. I thought they probably took a wave, and I will come out of it later. You know they can do these things photographically. So I was waiting for this incredible appearance, for something strange. But here I am standing, waiting, thinking 'Night is going to come', but that wasn't what it was. It was just that I had a very athletic-looking body.

"I consider myself a classical-looking person. The body is athletic, strong-looking, without doing anything. It's not somebody who went body- building or does gymnastics. I do sports, I swim, I ski, but that's all. I was just lucky".

She looks as fit and sleek as ever and you figure she must have a rigorous health regime. "Oh no! I would hate all that. After I came along, all those fitness centres sprang up and all the women were into exercise. I never exercised, ever. I was just born this way. I was very Germanic. My father has broad shoulders and always sits very straight. Not like today. My son sits like that and studies like that" - she pantomimes a punctured beanbag - "and I say, 'Sit up straight!' We were never allowed to slope over the table. In school also, otherwise we got hit. So I was used to holding myself correctly".

The vogue for the strong-looking woman was pretty brief in Hollywood, as such vogues usually are. Andress had five years of movies everyone has at least heard of, then on to the pan-European co-productions that leave few traces.

But the five years made their impact. The night before we met I was talking to the actress Jane Horrocks and I mentioned my date next day. Horrocks got deliciously excited. She swore that Andress in She had made her want to become an actress. When I repeat this to the embodiment of the richly mad Rider Haggard adventure, she performs a vast and funny Continental shrug. "I was forced to do that" she says tragically. "She was a very cheap Hammer film. The only thing I adored was the costumes. I was just lucky to look good in it because they photographed me beautifully."

The new piece is fabulously opulent on a budget. I don't know if I think Matthew Barney's cameraman has quite done full justice to his star's exquisite bones and bloomy skin. Andress has to mime the singing of a sustained dirge in Hungarian, which she gamely learned. You suspect that the gorgeous and florid costume she gets to wear won her participation more than anything. But no; she says she wanted to work with Barney because "he's somebody who isn't thinking about commercialising art. He did it for his true feeling for art, for his creation, which today is rare. Art is destroyed by money, money, money."

And so this charming and shrewd woman confounds us. The image of the goddess who has reached later life is inclined to the tragic or the pathetic, a figure we can patronise, maybe weep for. Not Ursula Andress. She never hankered for the bright lights in the first place. She is Swiss-German and earthy, practical and philosophical, self-mocking and home-loving.

She says that she has worked fitfully in recent years because as a single parent she wouldn't take offers. Now that her son is going to college, "I'm available. But then time is against me. It is my birthday. I'm going to be like Bette Davis and advertise that I'm available." She says this as a routine, laughing, but she admires the Davis spirit too. The difference is that, for her - unlike for Davis - being a movie star was never all that important. "I'm not an ambitious person. In a career or in sport, I hate competition because I get very upset by the feeling of everybody wanting to win. To me it's shocking".

I ask if she would want her son to go into the business. "I hope not," she says, low and heartfelt. "It's a very painful occupation. If you love this occupation you have to suffer. Fame is very difficult. You really have to love this art to do it".

It's curious that the name Ursula Andress will for ever invoke the image of this vision rising from the sea. On the contrary, the real woman has both feet firmly on dry land.

'Cremaster 5' plays at the Metro Cinema until 26 March. W Stephen Gilbert's most recent book, 'Fight & Kick & Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter', is in Sceptre paperback.